Asher gave me a smug smile and held it there for a few seconds before he turned back to his men. “Make him comfortable,” he said, the poisonous smirk audible in each word. “I’ll finish the audit and then join you downstairs.”
“When will I be able to finish my employer’s business with him?” Mila called down.
Asher scoffed. “Yes, yes, you can deliver your package, but not yet. This work has got to be done. I assume you can afford to wait a little longer?”
She shifted her weight and scratched at her cheek. “That’s fine,” she said after a moment.
“Excellent!” He pivoted and began to stride back to the staircase and the overlooking office. Mila went back into the room after another second.
The guards half-carried, half-dragged me through the rows of containers. My arms and legs were uncooperative, and it took a concentrated effort to keep from slumping into a boneless heap in the guards’ arms. Occasionally, one would hit me across the face without any provocation or warning. Each slap stung, more than they actually hurt, but the sharp impacts did keep me from falling into unconsciousness. My mind began to work properly at some point along the way. Wheels spun as my thoughts kicked into activity, motivated by the physical weight of fear pressing down on my bruised shoulders.
We reached a nondescript side room, invisible from the front entrance, before too long. Two guards came from behind me. I recognized Sandy, but the second man kept his face turned away from me. Sandy unlocked and opened the door with one hand; his other gripped his jaw as if it might fall to pieces at any moment. His glare bored into me, blazing with incandescent hate. Scarface joined the two men at the door and turned the eyes of a hardened professional to examine me. He motioned to the guards after he came to some conclusion. They heaved me into the room, and barely kept my face from hitting the stone floor with both hands. The door shut and clicked behind me, letting me know that I was now locked in.
It took three tries before I could stand without teetering for balance. When I was on my feet again, I swept my eyes across my room and promptly despaired. There was nothing here that I could use as a tool or a weapon, except for a single chair placed exactly in the center of the available floor space. I pushed lightly on the chair. It didn’t budge. A closer inspection revealed four thick bolts driven straight into the floor at the bottom of each chair leg. Without a screwdriver or an electric saw, there wasn’t any viable way for me to remove the bolts.
The room itself consisted of four off-white walls, without any distinguishing features, save for the single door I’d been thrown through. A bare bulb hung only a couple of inches away from the high ceiling, out of my reach, flooding the space with light. Above the door, moving from right to left in a slow rhythm, a lone camera kept track of my movements. I couldn’t see the men standing outside of the door, but I could their boots scuffling as they moved into position.
Exhaustion and delirium were making me feel a little loopy. I started talking to myself before I was even consciously aware of what I was doing. “Whatever will he do?” I asked, in a low murmur. “Our charming thief finds himself trapped, alone, without any supplies or support. What magic will he work to escape this latest death trap? Find out next time!”
In my mental state, and rapidly approaching the outermost limit of my capacity to handle stress, a part of me almost expected cheesy fifties serial music to be piped in from some speaker. My proclamation was only met with more of that same uniform silence, however. Aside from my own voice, the only sound inside of the room was the whisper of the camera’s motor, and the soft click as it reached the end of its track and reversed direction.
For a dozen minutes, I managed to distract myself with increasingly farfetched ideas about escaping. Perhaps Sarah would hire an army of local thugs to sweep the London countryside until they found the warehouse. Or, as my rambling mind went even farther afield, maybe Asher would have a change of heart and release me. That was technically possible. Or perhaps the Magi, those nameless and faceless criminal figures, would issue an order of protection for me. I couldn’t imagine a possible reason why that might happen, but fantasies didn’t require justification.
With each second that ticked away, my delusions withered and died. Sarah wasn’t coming. Asher wasn’t going to change his mind. The Magi probably didn’t know of my existence, and they certainly weren’t going to involve themselves in a personal squabble that was essentially already dealt with.
Surprise, as a weapon, was gone now. The guards knew exactly where I was and, thanks to the unblinking eye of the camera, could follow whatever movements I made within the room. My borrowed gun was gone and the collapsible baton had been lost at some point during the scuffle by the double doors. I had no way of communicating with the outside world, no method of convincing anyone inside the warehouse to change sides, and I didn’t even know exactly where I was. Any possible advantage I’d possessed had been stripped away. Any leverage I might attempt to use would be useless.
At thirteen minutes, I accepted the situation for what it was: I was trapped and there wasn’t any plausible series of events that included my continued well-being. Asher had won. I wasn’t even sure if I’d managed to do anything more than slightly inconvenience him. Whatever game I’d been caught up in – whatever game Sarah had been enticed to join – had claimed me as its first casualty.
Without consciously thinking about it, I touched two fingers to an earlobe. When I felt the gentle pressure of my fingertips, and did not hear Sarah’s reassuring voice in my ear, I let that hand fall limp to my side. Throwing the GPS-enabled cufflinks from the trunk had been the right choice. I’d been sure of as much when I’d made the call, but I was absolutely positive now. Without the signal to back-trace, Asher wouldn’t be able to find her safe house for a while. As it stood now, I was his only source of information.
I had no doubts that he’d manage to get that information out of me, either. Given an unlimited amount of time, a seemingly limitless cache of resources, and a fiendishly inventive mind driven by a lust for revenge, Asher would eventually break me. At that point, I’d tell him whatever he wanted to know in exchange for just a few seconds of peace. I intended to hold out for as long as possible, though. I could only hope that Sarah took what time I could give her as a head start and disappeared. That possibility, and that possibility alone, gave me a miniscule amount of comfort.
I looked up at the camera. “What do you want, Ash?” I asked the empty air. “What are you expecting to get from me?”
The camera did not answer.
Isolation was his first tactic, then. I’d suffered plenty of isolation during my extended stay at La Santé. By leaving me alone with nothing but my own thoughts for company, Asher ensured that I’d be forced to imagine what torments awaited me when he finished his ‘audit.’ Already, I felt some of my deepest fears nibbling at the edges of my conscious mind; fears that Asher, in his capacity of my former confidant, was perfectly aware of.
Prison had toughened me in that regard, but extended periods of time without human contact was something the mind simply wasn’t built to withstand. What I’d learned in La Santé would buy me time – would buy Sarah time, I reminded myself – but I would only last for so long. I would waver and, in that moment, anxiety and terror would rush in all at once. That was when Asher would show up, only to inflict those horrors on me until my resolve shattered and my secrets spilled out of me.
I collapsed into the lone chair and stopped that line of thought. Thinking like that was exactly what he wanted. That much would inevitably happen sooner or later, but I had no intention of succumbing to the tactic so easily or so quickly. I wrenched my thoughts away from fatalistic imaginings and considered the two people who held my fate in their hands, instead.
Asher was the easiest part of that puzzle: he was motivated to claim revenge on me, for the disastrous job in St. Petersburg. His hate for Sarah was also a known factor. In his rage, he blamed her for taking me away from him. I’d known that he didn’t like her very much, even before he betrayed me in Paris, but I’d underestimated the temperature of that disdain.
I didn’t know why he felt that she’d taken me away from him – Sarah and I hadn’t started working together on a permanent basis until several months after he’d disappeared – but it was what it was. I doubted that Asher would be willing to reconsider his position now.
The mysterious Mila was a wild-card. I knew absolutely nothing about her and, judging from the conversation between her and Asher, my ex-partner possessed just as much information. I was aware that her employer had tasked her with some delivery and that she had found me, even after Asher’s kidnapping, to fulfill her job. That spoke to a disturbing level of competence and a single-mindedness that I probably would have found admirable, in other circumstances. As it was, she was yet another mystery added to a pile of unanswered questions that was already far too tall.
The door’s lock clicked. I tensed and gripped the arms of my chair with white-knuckle intensity. The knob didn’t turn, though. After a moment, a voice came from the walls of the room.
“You’re aware that you’re under surveillance?” Asher’s voice asked.
I said nothing in response.
“I’m going to take that as a yes. This camera has a directional mic, it’s pointed right at you, and there’s really not reason for you to not answer. If it makes you feel better, go right ahead, though.”
“You know I’m not going to tell you anything,” I said, after a moment, directing a molten glare at the camera.
“False bravado? Prison really does change a person,” Asher said with a little laugh. “You do realize that you are going to tell me whatever I want to know, although I appreciate that you’ve got to grandstand a bit.”
“What do you want, Asher? What are you playing at?”
Asher ignored the question. “There are two men stationed outside of the room, Devlin. Both armed with…” Silence for a moment, and the distant sound of rustling papers. “…AO-38s and Makarov sidearms.”
“Couldn’t afford the AKs?”
“These guns are just as reliable,” he responded, “and just as good at putting large numbers of bullets into soft targets. Like, say, your stomach, where you’d have a slow, lingering death from bleeding out to look forward to. Or your kneecaps.”
I swallowed hard. “What’s the point?”
“My point, Devlin, is that you should stay right where you are while this door opens,” he said. “Any sudden movements and someone might get a little trigger-happy. Which would be a shame, just an absolute shame.”
I considered his words and decided, after less than a second, that he wasn’t bluffing. Moreover, it served me no good at all to try my luck at this juncture. There was virtually no chance of a heroic, last minute escape. A bullet in my kneecap reduced those odds to exactly zero. I increased the pressure on the arms of the unoffending chair and stayed put.
The door opened. Scarface was the first man through. An assault rifle lay flat against his chest and his kept his finger on the trigger guard. He entered without taking his eyes away from me and then took a position in one corner of the room.
A guard I hadn’t yet seen entered after him. This newest member of Asher’s “goon security force” was built like a truck, with a thick brow and a shaved head. There was a gleam in his eyes as he came through the door. He turned that gaze to me, and I recognized the glint for what it was: sadism, pure and simple. I’d seen more than a few convicts with that look in prison. This was a man who would enjoy witnessing the torture Asher had in store for me, just as much as he would enjoy crippling me if I gave him even the slightest excuse.
He must have seen understanding in my own expression. He approached me, his index finger twitching minutely toward the trigger of his own assault rifle. “Yes,” he said in a nearly impenetrable Slavic accent. “Try.”
I didn’t move an inch, not even to shake my head in the negative.
The bald man – who I mentally named ‘Neanderthal’ – leered closer to my face and smiled. His teeth were uneven and yellowed. His breath reeked of week-old cigarettes and stale beer. I clamped down on my revulsion to keep from recoiling. I was concerned that Neanderthal would shoot me anyway, simply for the pleasure it might bring him.
Scarface cleared his throat from the corner. Neanderthal turned toward the man, baring his teeth in frustration. “You have your orders,” Scarface said. He spoke English well, but each word was a little too deliberate for it to be his first language. “Follow them.”
Neanderthal stood straight up and, for a moment, I thought he might actually attack Scarface on the spot. Miraculously, he gave the scarred man a tiny nod and retreated to an opposite corner of the room.
The third person through the door wasn’t Asher. It was Mila. She still wore the same pantsuit from the museum gala, but a significant bulge under her coat told me that she’d added a weapon to the ensemble. I looked away from Neanderthal. Mila closed the door behind her and turned to face me. I met her eyes evenly.
“Hubert,” she said simply.
She came within a yard of me, utterly at ease. “So,” she said. “This is complicated.”
“Oh? We met under false pretenses, you hunted me down after I disappeared from the gala, and now you’re here to deliver a message from some mysterious employer before Asher has free reign to torture me.” Her eyebrows climbed a fraction at that. “I was listening in. I know what you’re here for.”
“You really don’t understand,” Mila said. “I’ve got a contract. I do what the contract says.”
“Whatever it says?” I turned and spat a mouthful of blood onto the floor. I realized, as I did it, that the action gave the impression of defiance. In reality, I just needed to clear the blood away so that I could speak without impediment, but I wasn’t about to throw away the benefit of perception to clarify. “Must be nice to not think for yourself.”
Mila shrugged. If she was offended, it didn’t show in her expression. “It has its ups and downs,” she admitted. “Usually, it helps keep things from getting too complicated.”
“Let me uncomplicated things even more, then,” I said. “Whatever your employer wants from me, they’ll have to get ready for a long wait. Asher won’t let you get anything from me until he’s done, and he’ll have to pull every syllable from me, kicking and screaming.”
“While that isn’t my particular style,” Mila said, “it does seem like your friend intends to do exactly that. And he isn’t going to stop until you tell him everything you know and everything you’ve even guessed about her.”
“If he thinks I’m going to tell him…” I paused. That didn’t make sense. Sarah’s civilian life was a matter of easily accessed public record and Asher already knew all about her criminal career. “Wait. What?”
Mila continued. “And after he’s finished, he’s going to kill you. Then he’s going to kill your friend at the computer, and then he’s going to make it his personal mission to find and kill her, too.”
“Her?” I asked. “Who’s ‘her?’”
Mila reached up to her cheek and scratched at it again. “Already?” She asked. “That was fast.”
I mirrored her gesture, scratching at my own cheek in confusion. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m not talking to you,” Mila said, offhandedly. Then, she spoke again. “Impressive. I suppose that means it’s time for me to do my job.”
I forgot myself and leaned forward. Neanderthal rumbled a sound of disagreement, and took a half step forward. “Your job? What’s your job?”
“My delivery.” Mila dug into her pants pockets and, after a moment, drew out a set of car keys. She lobbed them in my direction and they fell to the ground just in front of where I sat. Then, Mila reached up to her cheek again.
That’s when I realized what I’d been missing. Mila wasn’t touching her cheek; she was touching her ear. She plucked a nearly invisible item from her ear canal, wiped it clean on her coat, and then tossed the item to me. It landed directly in my lap and I picked it up without pausing to consider. My jaw dropped several inches as I examined the item. It was my earbud, or at least one identical in construction. I looked back up at Mila. She had turned away from me and was facing the camera now.”
“Target acquired,” she said. “Let’s call this phase one. Moving onto phase two, now.”
Both Neanderthal and Scarface raised eyebrows. From their positions, they didn’t see what I did. When Mila finished speaking, the tiny red light underneath the camera dimmed and went out. Mila nodded once, confirming that the camera was now inactive, and rolled her shoulders. “Devlin,” she said. “You should put that in.”
I hurried to comply. “Hello?” I said into the empty air.
Sarah’s voice replied, through the earbud. “Devlin! You’re okay!” A pause. “You’ve got to get down, right now.”
It took my brain several seconds to start functioning at an appreciable level. Even then, incomplete sentences and disconnected phrases were the most that I could manage. “What? I don’t…what is going on?”
“Get down!” Sarah yelled.
Then, the warehouse lights switched off and I was plunged entirely into blackness.